Ukrainian dancers find shelter abroad as war rages at home
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Ukrainian dancers find shelter abroad as war rages at home
Ivan Kozlov, who now heads the Kyiv City Ballet, dances with the Mariinsky Ballet in “La Bayadère,” in Washington, on Jan. 22, 2008. Opera houses and theaters in European cities are offering to help fleeing or stranded ballet dancers, even as many are still stuck in Ukraine. Linda Spillers/The New York Times.

by Aurelien Breeden and Marina Harss

PARIS.- When Ivan Kozlov landed in France with the Kyiv City Ballet on Feb. 23, the drumbeat of a possible Russian attack on Ukraine was growing louder. But he still didn’t think that President Vladimir Putin’s forces would invade.

“Honestly, I couldn’t believe it would happen,” said Kozlov, 39, who has directed the company since its creation in 2012. “I thought he was trying to scare us by putting soldiers at the border, that’s it.”

But the day after the company’s arrival in Paris, hours before its first performance, the troupe’s 30 or so dancers woke in the pre-dawn hours to news of airstrikes and troop movements flashing across their phones. War had broken out.

That made it nearly impossible for the company to return to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, after the end of its French tour, in mid-March.

“Every one of us was in shock,” Daniil Podhrushko, 21, one of the dancers, said through a translator. “We were in disbelief.”

Two million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the war, according to the United Nations. Like their compatriots, Ukrainian ballet dancers have found themselves caught in the middle of the conflict — trying to flee, stuck abroad or forced to remain in Ukraine. Now, theaters and opera houses around Europe are scrambling to offer help, shelter or work.

In Paris, City Hall stepped in to help the stranded Kyiv City Ballet by giving it a temporary residency at the Théâtre du Châtelet, one of the city’s most famous stages, where the dancers will have access to dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces and may even put on shows.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and the Socialist candidate in France’s upcoming presidential election, said Ukraine needed weapons to fight and diplomatic support from the international community. But Ukrainian artists also need help, she said.

“You can only create when you are free, and we need to hear what they are expressing, so that’s what we are offering them today,” Hidalgo told reporters at the Théâtre du Châtelet on Saturday after chatting with members of the ballet company on the stage. “They will be here for as long as it takes; I am absolutely not setting any deadline.”

Officials at the Ukrainian Embassy, Paris City Hall and the Théâtre du Châtelet are still ironing out the financial and practical details of the residency arrangement, although Kozlov said most dancers had already found some form of temporary accommodation.

In Warsaw, the Polish National Ballet is offering shelter to about 30 Ukrainian dancers in its opera house and the opportunity to join the ballet’s company class.

“For now, we have about 10 dancers who are taking class with the company, but we expect more of them to come every day,” Iwona Borucka, assistant to the director of the ballet, said in an email, adding that the company had received scores of audition inquiries from fleeing Ukrainian dancers.

“We do not have enough vacancies and the budget to hire them, but hopefully soon we will be able to offer work to at least some of them,” she said.

In Budapest, the Hungarian State Opera Ballet is in talks to offer positions to Ukrainian dancers, a spokesperson said. Its school has taken in two students from the Kyiv State Choreographic School; and Anna Mária Steiner-Isky, chair of the board of the Hungarian State Opera’s Fund for Ballet Students, drove 190 miles to the border to pick up two students whom she is now sheltering in her home.

In Prague, Filip Barankiewicz, artistic director of the Czech National Ballet, said that his company wanted to “provide a safe place to practice and offer ballet studios to at least give hope to Ukrainian dancers.”

“The requests are arriving every day,” he said in an email.

But in Kyiv, the Taras Shevchenko National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre of Ukraine, an ornate building that stands a block from the city’s famous medieval Golden Gate, has been closed since Russia invaded and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declared martial law. So far, it has remained unscathed, unlike the opera house in Kharkiv, which suffered damage in the Russian assault on that city.

The only people left in the building are the security guards protecting it, as the opera and the national ballet company have scattered. Some of the 170 dancers have left Kyiv, taking trains to the West, while others are sheltering with their families in the city.

At least two dancers from the National Ballet company based at the Kyiv opera house, principal Oleksiy Potyomkin and soloist Lesya Vorotnyk, have taken up arms, said Serge Bondur, a former dancer who holds the honorary title “People’s Artist of Ukraine” and works as a rehearsal director and teacher with the company. Bondur said he last saw Potyomkin in early March at the Kyiv train station, where both were putting their families on a train going west.

In a phone interview from Kyiv, Bondur, who is in his 50s, said he was still in his apartment not far from the opera house. Speaking through a translator in Russian — the language he grew up speaking in the Soviet Union — he said his wife and 14-year-old son were now in Italy.

He stayed behind to look after a friend, Olga Drozdova, a former dancer with the Kyiv City Ballet who has COVID-19 and relies on an oxygen machine. Her nurse left Kyiv, so Bondur brought her home with him.

His electricity, gas and internet are still running, even as explosions and air raid sirens grow increasingly common. “If the situation gets worse,” he said, “I will have to take her to the hospital where at least they have a generator.”

Back in Paris, Ekaterina Kozlova, the Kyiv City Ballet’s rehearsal manager and assistant director, said she felt flooded by a mix of relief and anxiety. “But we are so happy to be here because we feel like we are with friends,” she said. “It’s overwhelming how wonderful everyone has been.

“We are some of the luckiest people to be in Paris,” she added, gesturing from the stage toward the red velvet-covered seats and the ornate decorations of Châtelet’s main auditorium. “To be safe, in this beautiful theater.”

On Tuesday, the company put on a special show at the Théâtre du Châtelet, alongside dancers from the Opéra de Paris, which included an open rehearsal led by Kozlov and Aurélie Dupont, the ballet director of the Opéra de Paris. All proceeds from ticket sales are to be donated to Acted and the Red Cross to support Ukrainian civilians.

The Kyiv City Ballet dancers said they felt shaken by the war but also entrusted with a mission to represent and safeguard Ukrainian ballet while the conflict rages back home.

“Before the music begins, all of our thoughts are all about the situation in Ukraine,” Oleksandr Moroz, 19, said through a translator. “But when the music starts, we are professionals, and our thoughts move to the performance at hand.”

In the already tightknit world of ballet, Ukrainian and Russian dancers are closely connected, often having trained and performed together in the same schools and cities. That has made the war even more of a heartbreak. Kozlov, who danced with the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, from 2007 to 2010, said he still had many friends in Russia.

“They are telling me that they would love to say or do something, but they cannot because they are afraid,” he said, referring to the Kremlin’s intense crackdown on free speech.

But in Kyiv, Bondur said he had received no such messages of support from former Russian colleagues. These days, instead of teaching class and leading rehearsals, he supplies neighbors with food and medication and stays in touch with other dancers on WhatsApp.

“We just take care of our loved ones and try not to panic and have full control,” he said. “The only thing we hope for is that bombs don’t fall from our skies.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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